USF Sarasota Manatee fights for its funding

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SARASOTA - Usually college students follow the lead of their professors and school administrators. At USF Sarasota Manatee, the school will follow its students into battle over its budget.

Student governments around the state have launched a campaign they call "Aim Higher," which aims to convince state legislators to restore funding it has cut from higher education in recent years, including a 27% slice of USFSM's budget last year. The state budget crunch has put pressure on schools to raise tuition to make ends meet.

"I see myself with $15,000 debt because tuition has gradually gone up and up and up," says Stephanie Hames, USFSM Student Body Vice President, who will trek to Tallahassee with a fellow student and school officials to join counterparts from USF's other campuses in Tampa and St. Petersburg for a USF Day in the state capital February 19.

"I hope we get the money back," Hames says. "And that legislators realize that it's getting impossible to go to school."

USFSM has raised tuition less than other state universities, despite budget challenges. It shuts campus down completely on Sundays, has curtailed custodial services, and has had to hire faculty in non-tenure track positions even as enrollment has expanded, and the school readies to become a four-year school. It welcomes its first freshman class this fall. "We've had to be as creative as we possibly can but all the time not sacrificing our fine educational programs," says USFSM Regional Chancellor Arthur Guilford.

Governor Rick Scott has proposed a budget that would restore $300 million cut from the university system last year, but schools would have to compete for much of that based on things like job placement success and starting salaries for graduates. That works against a school like USFSM, one of whose largest departments is its College of Education. "Those graduates, although they're certainly getting jobs, are not going in at ridiculously high salaries," Guilford says. "So we're going to be a little disadvantaged in terms of that competition."

It could prove a challenge even getting the governor's plan passed through the legislature. Lawmakers have not signaled that they're eager to increase state spending as much as Scott. Guilford will accompany the USFSM contingent to Tallahassee. "We'll have a tough audience," he says. Florida's improving economy will help, but, "unfortunately, I don't think we'll get full restoration of our budget."